Friday, 22 April 2011

Zucca, Bermondsey

The only problem with Zucca is that it's not on my street. This is pure, unfussy Italian food at its best. And it comes in relaxed but brightly buzzy surrounds with pleasant service - and at prices so good, you could make it a once a weeker.

The room itself is one of those happy places that immediately makes you smile - clean lines, white tables, big sunny windows, open kitchen, bright warm splashes of pumpkin orange. It's River Cafe, without the river. And I said that on the night before I knew about chef Sam Harris' former connection with River Cafe. We dined in the evening, but I walked past again the next day and the whole room was bathing gloriously in sunshine - a lovely spot for lunch.

The food just broadens the whopping big cheeser that's already on your dial. Meatballs with sweet, hearty tomato sauce are a favorite (I think we ordered a second serve), and TPG and I also loved the fresh carpaccio of seabass which is liberally dressed in a grassy olive oil. Even the bruschetta is a memorable mouthful of caramel-like roasted onion and taleggio.

Since we all want everything on the menu, we also share among our starters a toothsome bowl of thin taglierini with spring herbs and ricotta.

For mains, D enjoys the casarecce pasta with pork and fennel ragu, and TPG and R share the grilled lamb chops for 2 (wonderously pink and juicy morsels) with potato and anchovy.

It must be Easter, as I seem to have a dose of bunny at this time every year - in this case, the slow cooked, ultra moist rabbit with trevisano and to die for creamy white polenta. It's love.

The only complaint is that there's a hell of a lot of olive oil on nearly every plate - but it's greeny, good, olivey olive oil at it's best.

Desserts are marvellous - TPG hops in to a seductively wobbly vanilla pannacotta (beautifully silky and creamy), but even he has to agree that my warm rhurbarb and almond cake is the real dark horse - perfect if you like a more restrained dessert.

Prices are incredibly reasonable for the quality and gorgeous surrounds - antipasti - £3.95 - £4.50, pasta (only 2 to choose from) at £7 or £9 and mains all hover around the £14.50 mark. Including 2 bottles of a lovely Barbera and service, I think we got away for less than £40 per head.

Zucca and Trullo (reviewed earlier) are exactly what I want from my Italian restaurants. These are two restaurants in London that I'm almost bursting to get back to.

Zucca, 184 Bermondsey Street, Bermondsey (near London Bridge), SE1 3TQ, Tel: 020 7378 6809

Zucca on Urbanspoon

Monday, 18 April 2011

St Ali, Farringdon

Nothing like starting off your weekend with a flat white and a Mexican.

And now we can. No need to be shy about it. Because one of my favourite Melbourne coffee shops has just hit London. St Ali has opened a new outpost in Farringdon. *High fives the computer screen, moonwalks backwards across living room, does the Risky Business dance on the coach*.

St Ali is said to be named after "the patron saint of coffee", Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili, the man who first introduced coffee beans to the Muslim mystics. They make some of the best coffee in Melbourne, where the competition is hot, and now they're doing it in style in London.

My flat white was seriously good. I don't even know what blend it was, so enthusiastic was I to wallow in the smooth, coffee, heavenly goodness that I last tasted in South Melbourne. There was no time for inquisitive banter. TPG had a rich and pure drip filter coffee which was well worth the wait.

But, best of all, the Mexican has come to town. The Mexican, oh the Mexican. The Mexican is, my friends - crispy corn fritters, creamy, salty halloumi, sweet sliced tomato, sour kasundi and 2 poached eggs. Happy, happy days.

Another serve of poached eggs came with 4 large pieces of thick sourdough (too much for even us to eat) and 2 runny poached eggs - bargainous value at £5, while I think the Mexican was about £9. (This probably better value than most breakfasts in Melbourne these days).

The interior at St Ali in Farringdon is along the same lines as the industrial, hollowed out factory look in South Melbourne, although slightly more polished and newbie looking - and I don't like it quite as much. But it's a huge space (the bathrooms are bigger than my flat) with high ceilings, big impressive looking coffee machines and a chunky wooden communal table in the window. The stools there are at an annoying, knee hitting height, and it's a bit dark inside, but otherwise it's all good.

This part of town is becoming quite the foodie hub, with Bistrot Bruno Loubet across the road and St John and Vinoteca around the corner. As far as breakfasts and coffee goes, St Ali can hold its head high amongst them.

St Ali, 27 Clerkenwell Road, Farringdon, EC1M 5RN (Tel: 0778 011 2631)

St Ali on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Nopi, Soho

Beef brisket croquettes with Asian 'slaw

I'm a big fan of Ottolenghi - both the cafes and the cookbooks. With such bright and bold flavours and colours, a table full of Ottolenghi salads is like an exotic, glistening jewellery box appealing to the eye as much as the palate.

The Ottolenghi team have now opened Nopi in Soho. It's an all day dining brasserie with small sharing plates, brimming with Middle Eastern and Asian flavours.

Kingfish carpaccio

After an enthusiastic days shopping, TPG and I dropped in for a pitstop at the bar for some shared plates and a glass of wine (or two). (Although other reports suggest it's best to book ahead).

Beef brisket croquettes with Asian 'slaw are sublimely rich, meaty and moist - the tangy slaw cuts through them perfectly. A must, I'd say.

Pan fried sea bream with turmeric potatoes and rasam is excellent, so plump and juicy, while a spicy kingfish carpaccio with pickled cauliflower is light and lovely.

Creamy burrato oozes onto a salad of bright blood orange and coriander seeds.

The wine list is interesting and our servers at the bar are fantastic - they do a great job of suggesting wines to match our meal, which really hit the spot.

The atmosphere is lacking something (might it be different in the evening?), and its quite a dark spot on a sunny day - but I do love the funky light fittings. It's smarter than the Ottolenghi cafes, but it's still fairly relaxed and people seem to be enjoying themselves. The downstairs canteen area has a big communal table overlooking the open kitchen, and is more in the Ottolenghi cafe style. Special mention must go to the room of angled mirrors that is the bathroom - try to find your way out in under 5 seconds (it's totally worth a visit while you're there).

Prices are in the mid-high range and can stack up - our bill came in at just over £70 for two people, including 3 glasses of wine and service.

Thinking about Ottolenghi's lusty cake selection, I'm tempted to go back to Nopi to try the cardamom rice pudding with rose syrup and pistachio. I'll keep you posted.

 Nopi,  22 Warwick Street, Soho, London, W1B 5NE (Tel: 020 7494 9584)

NOPI on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

St John Hotel, Chinatown

I'm quite partial to the bacon sandwich at St John in Spitalfields, as a lazy heart starter to the weekend. It's not on the breakfast menu at the new St John in Soho, but its enough to know that they do the simple stuff well.

Mushrooms on toast are divinely rich and beefy, while the pretty basket of buns is shiny and sweet, with cinnamon, raison and simple plain buns in the mix.

The coffee's not bad either - although at £3.75 for a not warm enough flat white or a cafetiere, it's expensive.

The menu is short but has several serious tempters - like the ham, eggs and fried bread, or the boiled egg and anchovy toast.

But at just over £25 (including service) for the above small and simple breakfast for 2, we leave feeling slightly flabbergasted at how we just spent so much on so little. And TPG is hankering for a local supply of the pikelets and madeleines we love so much at Spitalfields and Farringdon (ooh - the madeleines are available at lunch).

Fortunately, we're in zen mode. The crisp, white room surrounded by windows is a calming little morning oasis in the otherwise hectic surrounds of Chinatown. And the waiters are the friendliest (by far) that I've experienced at any of the three St John establishments - with that gripe gone, I'll happily be back to try the traditional St John nose-to-tail dinner menu soon (where perhaps the prices might be more easily justified).

St John Hotel, 1 Leicester Square, Soho, London, WC2H 7BL (Tel: 0203 301 8069)

St. John Hotel on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Mason & Taylor, Shoreditch

Mason & Taylor might be mostly about the beer, but you have to also love it for the entertainment factor in watching all the people outside trying to find the front door. I tried pushing in the window and did at least 2 laps before I worked it out. Try walking in with dignity after you've head butted the window.

Fortunately, it's worth the humiliation. Mason & Taylor is a craft beer and real ale bar, which opened in December 2010. All beers come from independent brewers, there are 12 draught beers and ales on tap a "seasonal" list of 40 bottled beers which changes every 2 months. You can now even work through tasting flights of three or six 1/3 pint glasses.

However the Sunday lunch is also a winner.

At Ms L's birthday lunch recently, the 3 boys shared a gargantuan shoulder of roast Herwick lamb which came out in proportions that really could have fed all 5 of us (it's recommended for 2 or 3 at £65 total). Just the sight of it was the cause of much excitement, but it was also gorgeously tender, pink and delicious.

My roast chicken was equally fab and juicy (£12.50). Both came with hefty servings of crisp and fluffy duck fat roast taties, parsnip, carrots and sprout tops (and mine with bread sauce). Ms L seemed just as enamoured with her roasted artichoke veggie roast.

TPG - always a dessert traditionalist - felt the Eton Mess should not have been messed with, being made with cranberry rather than strawberries, and so he opted for the terrific chocolate pud - insanely rich, but nothing a good slosh of cream couldn't help with (£4.50-£5).

Aside from the Sunday roast, M&T's food is generally served on smaller sharing plates. We grazed a couple of months ago over some beer and wine in the evening - while there's nothing overly remarkable, the combinations are simple and tasty - like scotch quails eggs with sauce gribiche, caramelised pear, walnut and Cropwell Bishop salad, wild boar sausage and beetroot mash and ginger beer battered squid with cucumber dipping sauce. The grazing plates (all priced around £3-£6.50) are good, although the Sunday roast tops them for me, and the evenings are mostly about something decent to nibble while you focus on the beer.

Mason and Taylor is light and airy, with wooden tables and chairs and big floor to ceiling windows right round - a seat by the corner window had us basking in the glow of Sunday afternoon sun, watching Shoreditchians dancing in the streets to the jazz down the road. The staff are equally sunny, and prices are very reasonable - we paid about £30 per head for a whole afternoon of feasting and drinking.

If I lived in Shoreditch, this would be a regular Sunday afternoon haunt.

Mason & Taylor, 51-55 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E1 6LA (Tel: 020 7749 9670)

Mason & Taylor on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Royal Wedding Sapphire Afternoon Tea: Podium, The London Hilton on Park Lane

Despite the fact that Kate and Wills are totally stealing our wedding limelight this year, I have to admit I'm a liiii-iitttle bit excited about the Royal Wedding. I won't be out on the streets waving a Union Jack (over to you, Sarah) but I will be *dying* to immerse myself in the endless highlight shows and Grazia's fashion analysis. The outfits, the jewels, the drama, the romance - aaaah....

So it was with a skip in my step that I eagerly accepted an invitation to dine with my fabulous friend, Rachel, at the somewhat-gimmicky-but-that's-why-we-love-it Limited Edition Royal Wedding Sapphire Afternoon Tea at Podium restaurant at the London Hilton on Park Lane.

Yes, you heard me right. Inspired by the sapphire engagement rock, the tea includes daintily decorated blue cakes and even a Blue Curacao and berry based "Loveberry" cocktail on arrival (and perhaps even a second one if you happen to spill yours in a moment of enthusiasm - ahem).

Since my last sampling of Podium's afternoon tea, they have been accepted into the Tea Guild in recognition of their high standard. The setting may not be glamorama, but the food and service are sparkling.

We started with a glass of champagne and delicate open sandwiches - the egg and cress and the cucumber with cream cheese and chives being my favourites among the selection, along with Foreman's smoked salmon and horseradish, honey roast ham and Pommery mustard, and prawn mayo with baby gem lettuce. I prefer proper closed sandwiches, but points for originality and they're good.

A Harney & Sons loose leaf black tea and peppermint blend has been specially created to match the afternoon tea and provided the perfect transition from cocktails to cake.

We high-fived ourselves in agreement when given the choice to ditch the fruit scones (dried fruit - way to ruin a good scone), opting for a selection of scrumptious freshly baked plain scones with clotted cream and blueberry jam, and chocolate chip scones with a delicious chocolate praline spread.

Moist blueberry jam cupcakes with K and W iced decorations and chocolate cupcakes with bouquet icing contained a lovely oozy buttermilk goo on the inside, while the top layer of gorgeous miniature fancies was spread out across an EDIBLE white chocolate plate. My favourites were the sweet, white chocolate hearts with tart passionfruit ooziness on the inside and the cheesecake and coconut parcel. Also included were a dainty shortbread wedding cake with gold leaf, biscuit tuile with blueberries and rich green tea truffles in white and milk chocolate.

Unlike the royal wedding, the tea at Podium is indulgent but not extravagant, fun but not pompous. Available from 26 April - 1 May 2011, the Sapphire Afternoon Tea is fairly priced at £32 per person including the cocktail on arrival (or £40 with a glass of champagne). At this price point, it's getting up there with Claridges without the art deco splendour to match - but it does have a cocktail, cakes and fancies that you don't get at Claridges and the like (the standard afternoon tea at Podium is only £25.50 per person). Perhaps to make a fairer comparison, special/seasonal afternoon teas at Claridges cost £50. And, crucially, it's only a short stroll from a commemorative lap of Buckingham Palace.

Podium at the London Hilton on Park Lane, 22 Park Lane, Mayfair, London W1K 1BE (Tel: 020 7208 4022)

Podium Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Stokehouse, St Kilda - Melbourne (Gluttonous Travels)

Summer is coming. For some inspiration, here's a shot of what Melbourne does well - beachside fine dining.

The Stokehouse is an iconic Melbourne restaurant on the St Kilda foreshore. Upstairs the fine dining is superb, in glamorous surrounds - it even has an outdoor balcony for your apertivos while watching the sun set over the water. I've never had a bad meal there - recommended for a romantic splurge.

Downstairs the mood in the beach bar is far more laid back, and can often be noisy and cluttered inside. But there's an outdoor seating area right on the foreshore - and that's where you'll find me. The food's usually good. It's the perfect place for beers and pizza, or a divine bowl of pasta on a sunny summer's day while watching the world go by on rollerblades.

TPG and I enjoyed an excellent pork and fennel sausage pizza with olives, chilli and oregano ($20) and a scrumptious, al dente spaghettini alla chittara (ie. made with a guitar like instrument of wood and strings) with crab and pangrattato (fine, crisp breadcrumbs) ($24).

Here come's the sun....

The Stokehouse, 30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda, Victoria, Australia (Tel: 913 9525 5555)

Stokehouse (upstairs) on Urbanspoon

Monday, 4 April 2011

Cecconi's, Mayfair

Spaghetti lobster

Cecconi's is a classic, old school, slightly glamorous and definitely-good-for-celebrity- spotting restaurant in the heart of Mayfair. It's the type of place to drop in at the bar for an excellent bowl of pasta and champagne, or a fine veal milanese, after a hard day's perusing the diamond jewellers and designer wares of New Bond Street. As you do.

TPG and I did just that (although unfortunately my hands were glaringly rockless and frockless at the time, despite my best efforts). The stripey black and white floor and green leather seats with art deco fittings give it a certain charm and its easy to while away an hour or so at the bar with a book, or to settle in for a longer session with friends at a table.

As I was largely feasting on champagne on our last visit, I snacked on a cichetti sized plate of plump baby octopus with dreamily creamy polenta (£8) - even TPG, who won't normally eat polenta,  lapped it up. TPG had a fantastic bowl of perfectly cooked spaghetti lobster which, while pricey, put most the attempts of most other similarly priced establishments to shame (£26). Generous amounts of sweet, fresh lobster meat and rich tomatoes flirted with satisfyingly al dente strings of pasta. Why is it so hard for other restaurants to make Italian food this good?

Starters are priced around £7-£12, pasta at £10-£20 (or £26 for the spaghetti lobster) and mains at £19-£28 - fair prices for the location, setting and quality.

We've had breakfast at Cecconi's several times before, when the venue somehow loses most of its charm and serves up far more boring fare and average coffee. Stick to bubbly at the bar, or the lunch and dinner menu.  The £46 set menu (3 courses) has just made my "to do" list.

Cecconi's, 5a Burlington Gardens, Mayfair, London W1S 3EP (Tel: 020 7434 1500)

Cecconi's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Bonds Restaurant and Bar, City


Sky high ceilings, sophisticated surrounds, fabulous food and cheeky cocktails - what's not to like about Bonds Restaurant and Bar?

I don't spend much time in the City, and had never heard of Bonds before I was invited along to dine there recently. Head chef, Barry Tonks, has impressive credentials and I had an inkling this was one offer not to pass up.

TPG and I were not disappointed from the moment we stepped up to the bar for cocktails. While the fun bar area is heaving on a Friday night with a glam after 5 city crowd, the beautiful stately room that is the restaurant is a calmer affair, setting the scene for the fine quality European fare coming from Tonk's kitchen.

Plump, hand dived West Coast scallops "a la plancha" were perfectly done, served in a line up of spicy roasted chorizo and squid ink polenta (£16.95). An impressive start. Spicy fresh Dorset Bay crab salad was fresh and zingy, although less memorable despite the quality produce (£14.95).

Slow cooked Elwy Valley lamb rump was an absolute winner. Tender, pink and juicy, it was cooked expertly so as to detract nothing from the flavour of the gorgeous piece of meat itself. The sumptuously rich braised lamb shoulder Boulangere potato accompanying it dressed it up perfectly, alongside sprout tops and root vegetable puree (£24.95).

A fine piece of Scottish halibut "a la plancha" came with a pretty collection of jerusalem artichoke puree, king oyster mushrooms, potato gnocchi and poultry jus to add some fru fru (£24.95).

Desserts were gorgeous - floating island with crushed raspberries and pink praline in custard and a silky creme brulee (with an unnecessary cassis sorbet) (£6.95).

Service was helpful and knowledgeable - the fabulous wines selected were spot on for our tastes and our dishes.

These are City prices, but overall it's good value for a City restaurant of this calibre and gorgeous surrounds. They also have a 3 course lunch/dinner deal for £19.95 which looks like a goer. Bonds may be full of pin striped suits at lunch for all I know, but it has a mixed crowd of all ages at night, and would be an excellent place for an impressive date or an unstuffy work dinner. Pass me a martini...

Bonds, Threadneedle Hotel, Threadneedle Street, London EC2R 8AY (Tel: 020 7657 8088)

Bonds on Urbanspoon

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